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5 Influential Women Activists throughout History

Marianne Stenger
8th March 2017

International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women from all walks of life, and this year’s campaign theme is Be Bold for Change.

In honour of the day, we’ve lined up just a few of the many influential women activists who left their mark on the world. These women were nothing if not bold and each one did their part to make the world a better place by shaking up the establishment, breaking gender and racial barriers and standing up for what they believed in.

1. Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst was a British women’s rights activist and leader of the suffrage movement. She helped found the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903, which fought for women’s right to vote in public elections. Her organisation gained notoriety for its radical activities which included hunger strikes, arson and property damage.

Pankhurst herself was arrested on multiple occasions and staged hunger strikes that resulted in violent force-feeding. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act granted the vote to women over the age of 30, and in 1928, shortly after Pankhurst’s death, the vote was extended to all women over the age of 21.

2. Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir was a French writer, philosopher, political activist and influential feminist thinker. Her 1949 book “The Second Sex” was extremely controversial for its time, so much so that it was placed on the Vatican’s List of Prohibited Books.  

The book, which is now regarded as one of the most influential books on feminist philosophy, posed questions about the history of women’s oppression and laid the groundwork for second-wave feminism.

3. Amelia Earhart

Although Amelia Earhart is best known for her exploits as the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, she was also a passionate equal rights activist. 

Earhart was a member of the National Women’s Party as well as a visiting faculty member at Purdue University where she counselled young women on career choices and encouraged them to discover their true potential. She famously said “Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

4. Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks is often called “the first lady of civil rights” and has been nationally recognised as the mother of the modern day civil rights movement in America. Her simple refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in 1955 led to a bus boycott that lasted for more than a year and resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that bus segregation was unconstitutional. 

She later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Upon her death in 2005, she became the first woman to lie in honour at the Capitol Rotunda.

5. Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan political activist and environmentalist. She became the first woman in East or Central Africa to earn a doctorate and went on to found the Green Belt Movement, an organisation that focuses on environmental conservation.

Throughout her career, Maathai worked to end environmental destruction and empower rural women. Her organisation has since planted more than 30 million trees and trained over 30,000 women in trades that help them earn an income while also preserving their lands and resources. Maathai won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.